This column appeared first in The Malay Mail Online on January 29, 2015. This is reproduced here
JANUARY 29 — I’ve been racking my brain trying not to be too vicious to naysayers over local elections — or as some refer to it as municipal elections or the classier term, the third vote (its consideration after parliamentary and state assembly reps votes).
But they do tempt me with their infantile remarks regarding democracy, and in analysing the devolution of power along with decentralisation of administration which comes with the third vote.
Fine, infantile is strong, let’s settle for weak position. No, I can’t go with that. They’ve been pretty stupid about it, actually, so let’s give them props for it.
Because not wanting council, town or city level elections in the 21st century is tantamount to being one of the following; bigoted, massively uninformed, suffering an incurable disease which afflicts the brain which ceases rudimentary functions like thinking or just taking advantage of unfortunate events in the country’s past to solidify one’s own position at the expense of the citizenry.
That’s right, those against local elections in principle are either related to Ibrahim Ali, get their facts from toilet walls, lost vital connectivity to the brain or serial manipulators.
One of the four, and none of them flattering in any time zone.
Unsurprisingly, the negation is arriving from both Pakatan and Barisan Nasional leaders, and the passivity of some hoping that the usual cycle of demanding local elections dies down has not gone unnoticed — not in my cramped room in Cheras.
There are no valid arguments against having these polls, just attempts to veer discussions to sentiments and couching voting to the act of dismembering the body of equity, modernity, humanity or anything convenient at the time of making the argument.
Its reinstitution is long overdue and it is a stain on our collective intelligence and integrity that we have not. Fifty years ago in 1965 they ended local elections — it was wrong then, and it is increasingly becoming embarrassing today.
I ask these naysayers to present how it has failed. Sri Lanka had local elections even when it was in the quagmire of a civil war. China’s only real elections are at the municipal levels. Afghanistan is continuously tinkering but not abandoning local elections, even with the Taliban ever-lurking. The ancient city of London has joined the game late but did not use pride and tradition as an excuse to not reform when it began electing its mayor in 2000.
We let parent-teacher associations vote their board, we encourage residential associations to elect democratically and fairly leaders to provide solutions and even engage local councils, we vote the presidents of business chambers whom we then expect to speak for us at business conventions and we even accept that school stamp clubs can elect presidents, but somehow miraculously all the same arguments and reasons for reasonable and fair selections of those to run our local councils become incongruous, unpatriotic and dangerous?
Man, whatever you are smoking, a forensic lab should examine it.
Those who oppose don’t want to be constructive, they just want to paint the worst picture of the worst things possible happening in the worst possible way. Some faith in our people might not be the worst thing, in this and other situations.
If the billions of people around the globe holding local elections have not collapsed simultaneously in epileptic fits which would gobsmack even Fox News, then maybe it might be in the realm of possible, a fun group of people like Malaysians — my countrymen are generally chirpy, it’s the politicians who look embalmed when they speak — can survive local elections.
Instead it is the inane confronting me.
A member of the government, I’m not saying it is the youth and sports minister (I’m not saying it’s not), said that he was perplexed that Pakatan are keen on local elections, when their own parties are at loggerheads over it. But surely, that’s good news for the blokes against Pakatan right (the minister’s guys)? Local elections would then theoretically help BN win more seats than expected in Penang, no?
So why the objection?
Why are so many in the ruling class from either side of the divide disinclined to support local elections?
The lion king
If human civilisation’s time on the planet was measured as a day, substantial democratic reform would have started a minute to midnight. Almost all of human history has been dark without widespread working democracy.
It has been a long arduous struggle for mankind to rationalise power to most people.
So when a step back is suggested, I tend to become incensed.
Man instinctively knew he was to co-exist in groups, tribes, communes or societies. Organically, by foul means or plain necessity, ruling classes emerged and remained. Acquiescence gained since order with structured power was more appealing that disorder through anarchy. In short, the big shots got the cute girls.
It was a self-evident organic limitation.
Eventually evolution forced distribution of power whether feasible or not, as failed democracies piled on other failed ones. Technology in the last five hundred years has quickened the evolution by offering means to overcome the organic limitations.
Literacy for instance opened up the false boundaries in our human minds.
Most people before that did not bother to read, because there was no reading material. Even religious texts were limited because they had to be scribed by artisans. Stories were orally recounted and those who recognised alphabets were hailed as wise.
The printing press brought reading to you and me, and as a child of the underclass I rather worship Guttenberg by my bedside. That and other game-changers have liberated the denizen.
To deny the possibilities that technology bring, seamless connectivity, information and rapid-repeat consensus building, which would render local elections as opening gambits to full unprecedented involvement of the masses in power, is to deny our own human potential to advance as an empowered people. Our own humanity is at the centre of this debate.
The right time and learning curves
It took the City of New York 58 years after the United States declared independence to have an elected mayor in 1834.
Between the founding of New York as New Amsterdam in 1624 to that famous day of having its own elected mayor, two colonial powers were ejected and the city had 209 years of appointed leaders.
Some might say that it did not fail New York to have two centuries of controlled rule, but others might say that the 180 years since then which has really transformed it into the Big Apple. That a city which picks its own boss gets full value from those it picks.
The picking does not end there.
New Yorkers vote-in a congressman every two years; and two senators separately and less often. They have to vote their local councilman and then a mayor. They have to vote a state legislative assemblyman and even some senators to the state house. Then there is voting for attorney-general, comptroller, governor and lieutenant-governor. Did I mention there is the small business of voting the president of the country?
Replace New York with Kuala Lumpur and the distinctions become stark.
Here, the people allegedly with universal suffrage vote one time in five years if they are actually registered as voters as indicated by the latest electoral roll from the Election Commission. The Kuala Lumpur citizen holds one piece of paper and crosses one time — lest he or she intends to have the vote disqualified — for one parliamentarian twice in a decade. And in the present balance, the winner is eight out of 10 from the coalition out of power therefore the parliamentarian has the identical power of any average pedestrian in Setapak to order City Hall, which is nada.
Thank the Milky Way that millions of Kuala Lumpur citizens are spared the confusion, fear and the denggi of deciding their own lives. And many, like my father have lived, loved and missed the city and then passed on without deciding its fate.
Still, those with the mandate to do the right thing have chosen to ignore the categorical imperative to act.
Because change tends to have a life of its own.
I said that technology is radically altering the ratio of man and effective voice in government, and there is consensus worldwide.
Those from both sides of the political divide ignoring the clarion call are the ones confused and afraid.
Local elections might lead to other things and innovations foreign to Malaysia. Suggestions to try proportional representations rather than just segmented zones, feelers for preferential voting so that second choices matter when your favourite falls, discussions revolving over run-off elections when there is no absolute majority, whispers of party lists to give real representations to minorities, urges for the senate to be fully elected and with real lawmaking powers and maybe even proposals for referendums for nationally pertinent issues of grave consequence.
There are endless possibilities and each threatening to alter the political landscape and increase the man on the street’s voice.
On a personal note, they can stuff the talk about local council elections being a burden in a time of economic tumult. Elections always cost money, and I am not going to sneak in a “find savings” argument.
Still, Kuala Lumpur City Hall decking low-cost blocks and streetlights with flags and lights for city day this weekend don’t come for free too. The cynic may add that in time of economic tumult better heads are required at City Hall and an election is likelier to give us saviours.